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Road trip from Vail to Puerto Peñasco shows need for open border

July 1, 2019, 2:41 pm
The border crossing from Lukeville, Arizona into Sonoyta, Mexico on June 14.

The Williams family just got back from an 1,852-mile (roundtrip) road trip from our home in EagleVail, Colorado, to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, Mexico. It was a great low-cost beach vacation driving through the heart of some of the most spectacular canyon country in the United States (we even got in a side hike on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon).

It was also a revelatory road trip at a time when political rhetoric is painting a false picture of a war zone along our southern border with Mexico. In fact, the crossing from Lukeville, Arizona, into Sonoyta, Mexico, was uncrowded and provided relatively smooth sailing both ways.

This is not a major port of entry for immigrants traveling through Mexico and seeking asylum in the United States from drug cartels and gang warfare in the Northern Triangle of Central American. But we saw clear evidence of poverty, desperation and stepped-up border control, including a weary man on foot stopped by park rangers in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Temperatures there exceed 100 Fahrenheit in mid-June.

But in Puerto Peñasco, known in the States as Rocky Point, temps were in the mid-80s with cool ocean breezes coming in off the Gulf of California. There are many nice homes there owned by Phoenix and Tucson residents and available on VRBO at very reasonable prices compared to resort areas like Cancun and Cabo San Lucas – hence the nickname “Arizona’s Beach”.

Quick Grand Canyon hike en route to Puerto Peñasco.

The surf is not that big at the northern-most point of the Gulf of California – between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico – so if surfing is your thing, you’ll probably be bored. Compared to Nosara, Costa Rica, where we went last year, Rocky Point is not a big surf spot (shout out to Michael and all the guys at Nosara Surf School, as well as the Harmony Hotel).

Nor does it have anything approaching the reef off Belize, if diving or snorkeling is your thing. That stay on Caye Caulker was our 2013 trip.

But what Puerto Peñasco does have is long, uncrowded, sandy beaches – especially the more east you head in its Las Conchas neighborhood – and tons of awesome homes to rent for relatively cheap. We got a 2016 home that sleeps 11 and has its own pool for $400 a night. The beach was just a short jaunt down the street.

Very chill paddleboarding in Puerto Peñasco.

It’s a great beach for kids and paddleboards, and in Las Conches you’re only 15 or 20 minutes from the downtown Malecon (or pier) where you’ll find a Mexican version of Seattle’s Pike Street Market and insanely cheap shrimp, flounder and grouper right off the fishing boats.

We grilled those up back “home” but also found plenty of relatively inexpensive and very good restaurants like The New Mexican grill, La Curva and the touristy but beachside and quite good Wrecked at the Reef. Its Italian neighbor, Mare Blu, is worth a try as well. And another big shout out to the folks at Agave Grill in Ajo, Arizona, on the way down, who treated us very well.

Puerto Peñasco is only about 250 miles up the mainland coast from Bahia Kino, Mexico, where I spent some time in high school doing a Denver Public Schools Outward Bound-style class called Senior Seminar, where we did an exchange student program in the city of Hermosillo and then drove out to the coast for rock climbing, a 72-hour desert survival solo and then a 10K run. We also hiked to the Seri Indian village of El Desemboque.

This was all in the 1980s, when crossing back and forth through Nogales and Tijuana was not that big a deal. I even hitchhiked once from Tijuana to Ensenada. Those times have unfortunately changed, but I would love for us to return to a better border situation, with more openness and direct commerce and cultural exchange. The current militarize stance is a farce give the economic and social interconnectedness of our two nations.

There’s no reason for the current situation other than the policies of our respective governments and the failed “War on Drugs” that never dealt with the insatiable demand in the United States or the fact our gun lobby has promoted policies that flood Mexico and Central American with U.S. guns. Government and corporate greed are what’s poisoning life along the border – not the people struggling to make a living and provide for their families on both sides.

On that topic, here’s a story I produced for the Vail Daily that ran on June 30. It’s about the acute need for Mexican and Central American labor in Vail and other Colorado resort towns and the recent conclusion of Immigrant Heritage Month:

‘Doing really critical work to keep these ski towns open’

Reformers spotlight economic benefit during Immigrant Heritage Month

In a week filled with tumultuous immigration news, reform advocates in Colorado’s high country want people to focus on the economic contributions of immigrants in the midst of a worsening work-visa and labor-shortage crisis and as June’s Immigrant Heritage Month comes to a close.

“Oftentimes people think about our broken immigration system solely through the lens of people who are here undocumented but forget that our system is actually really complex and [includes] special work visas that people for a really long time have been able to tap into to get the kind of labor they need, whether that’s in construction and landscaping or even farms across the state of Colorado,” said Colorado State Immigration Manager Marissa Molina.

Landscaping and construction companies up and down the Vail Valley have been struggling all spring and so far this summer to find enough workers in Eagle County, where the unemployment rate is below 2 percent and the once-solid H-2B temporary work visa for unskilled, nonagricultural workers has become an unreliable crapshoot.

Glen Ellison of Ceres Landcare and Ceres+ Landscape Architecture in Eagle says for 18 years he went to great expense and effort to sponsor 35 H-2B workers – many from one town in Mexico – because he couldn’t find U.S. citizens willing and able to do the hard work in often tough conditions to create and maintain the high-end landscaping in Beaver Creek and Cordillera.

The last two years of the Trump administration the program has failed to produce a single worker for Ellison, and it also came up empty during the Great Recession one year under the Obama administration.

“As difficult as it was accept back then, it was probably for a good reason. But today, when there’s an uptick in the economy and last year we didn’t get a single employee back or this year … it’s maddening,” Ellison said. “They’re 35 crafty, dedicated, loyal, hardworking [men], like family members.”

Gary Woodworth, president and CEO of the Gallegos Corporation masonry and construction company in Wolcott, has been using H-2B visas for two decades. In recent years, the breakdown of the work visa system has prompted him to travel to Washington to lobby for the only part of the system he says was working. Ellison joined him on a recent trip.

“It’s important to us to be able to increase our numbers with that legal workforce that is vetted when they come here,” Woodworth said at a Vail Symposium event on immigration and work visas in Edwards last spring.

“By the time they come to our place to work, they’ve been through all of the counselor appointments, they’ve been verified. They don’t have any criminal backgrounds or they would not be here. They’re here for one reason and that’s to work, send money home and go home at the end of the year,” Woodworth added.

Both Ellison and Woodworth say they’ve gone to great lengths to recruit American citizens for their unfilled jobs but simply can’t get the workers – even at relatively high pay rates with benefits. Woodworth agrees that the work visa system has become entangled in the larger immigration debate.

“Immigration reform beyond that is a large issue that I think we all would like to see corrected, updated in some form so that we can employ more of the local people that we know are in and amongst us that we helped to raise as kids and support and educate and give them an opportunity in our country,” Woodworth said.

Molina, who was brought to Glenwood Springs from Mexico at the age of 9, is now a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or DACA. A so-called “Dreamer,” Molina feels her parents and so many like them haven’t received the recognition they deserve as roofers and housekeepers often working in the shadows without benefits and retirement plans.

“While they’re contributing in really great numbers to our economy and are doing really critical work to keep these ski towns open and running, their work is so invisible,” said Molina, the first DACA recipient to serve on a Colorado state board (Metropolitan State University of Denver).

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will decide the fate of nearly 800,000 Dreamers nationwide after the Trump administration tried to end the Obama administration program and states challenged that move. The court will hear the case in October and likely rule next year. There are 17,000 DACA recipients in Colorado, including many right here in Eagle County.

“For the more than 17,000 DACA recipients in Colorado, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments on the termination of this vital program is deeply disappointing and will force Dreamers to continue to live their lives in fear and uncertainty,” Molina said, urging people to renew and go to for more information and resources.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House earlier this month passed the DREAM Act to permanently protection DACA recipients, with Vail Valley Rep. Joe Neguse testifying for the bill as the son of immigrants from Africa. The Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to even consider it.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court at least temporarily ended Trump administration efforts to put a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census, but some analysist say just the attempt likely already has had a chilling effect on the true count that determines federal funding for a wide variety of programs and congressional redistricting that could impact Eagle County in 2022.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. House passed a Senate version of a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package for the crisis on the border, with progressive Democrats angered the bill doesn’t do enough to check the Trump administration’s child custody and family separation policies after a story last weekend in The New York Times revealed inhumane conditions in Clint, Texas.

Images of a young father and his toddler daughter drowned in the Rio Grande earlier in the week provided graphic proof of the desperation on the border as Central American refugees seek work and a better way of life in the United States.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington),, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of and

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